For LGBT Orthodox Jews, Growth of Social Media Creates a Safe Space Online
Websites, blogs, Facebook groups, and online support groups offer the chance to connect without the risk of ‘going public’
Growing up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn in the 1970s, Moshe struggled with his homosexuality. “I went to yeshiva and there were no gay characters on television,” said Moshe, who asked that we not use his real name. There was no discussion of gay issues at the yeshiva, either, he remembers: Everyone was implicitly taught that the only way to channel their sexuality was to get married—to women, of course. At 22, Moshe did just that, hoping he could “marry the gay away.” “We dated for 12 days,” he recalled. That was in 1994, before the popular advent of the Internet. At the time, Moshe didn’t realize there were other Orthodox men grappling with their sexuality, too.
The online universe changed all that. A few years ago, he began reading blogs about other Orthodox gay men who were coming out. While he was still unable to confront his sexuality publicly, he felt he needed to connect with other people in similar situations—something the Internet allowed him to do without “going public.” “I was able to see people expressing themselves—Orthodox friends of mine expressing themselves with their homosexuality, and I wanted that,” he told me. “I needed that.”
His therapist at the time, a prominent rabbi in Moshe’s community, suggested he start his own blog to discuss his homosexuality anonymously. In June 2011, as a married father of four, he did. “I am a frum, gay & married male who feels compelled to share,” he wrote in his first blog entry. “I could be a mispallel in your shul listening to the Rov talk about the perverts and mishkav zochornicks [homosexuals] supporting gay marriage. … I reiterate, I am lonely and in pain. … I am convinced there are other people like me out there. I want them to know that they are not alone. I want to have the opportunity to hear from them and share my experience with them.”
Moshe wasn’t the only one. Since the Internet boom and the more recent growing popularity of social media—from blogs to Facebook groups, dating sites to Twitter feeds, as well as official organizational websites—there has been a veritable explosion of sites and support groups for LGBT Orthodox Jews, a population that until now, hid in the shadows. The Internet has created a safe space for a population caught between the demands of faith and the demands of self—a population that didn’t have a safe space before.
The Orthodox community has strict rules about homosexual behavior: Male homosexuality, colloquially known as mishkav zachor (literally, someone who lies with men), is explicitly forbidden in the Torah from Leviticus 18: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.” Lesbianism, while not explicitly forbidden, is equally frowned upon. From this narrow proscription of a sexual act, any behaviors or acts that could possibly be considered evidence of a homosexual lifestyle have also been widely condemned in Orthodox circles. Writing in the 1970s, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most important halachic decider of the century, wrote: “To speak of a desire for homosexual intimacy is a contradiction in terms. … The evil inclination entices the person to rebel against the will of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.” Some Orthodox rabbis continue to advocate “reparative therapy.” But even while other, more mainstream Orthodox attitudes have become far more compassionate, they still rarely get more accepting than a love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin approach. “Halakhah sees heterosexual marriage as the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression,” stated a groundbreaking 2010 declaration signed by several Orthodox rabbis that advocated against reparative therapy—itself a relatively major shift in Orthodox thinking about homosexuality. “The sensitivity and understanding we properly express for human beings with other sexual orientations does not diminish our commitment to that principle.”
Earlier this month, leading up to New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, a group of Orthodox rabbis signed a letter stating that since a group known by the initials of LGBT that was composed of several gay Jewish organizations had a “hidden agenda” of promoting homosexuality, Orthodox groups should pull out of the parade. “[It] is a brazen attempt to force Orthodox Jews to accept their way of life at the Torah’s expense,” the signatories wrote.
Faced with official condemnation and afraid to come out for fear of losing their religious community, many LGBT Orthodox Jews lived lives of quiet desperation until recently. According to several people I spoke with, many of the members of the oldest Orthodox LGBT group—Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni, who meet monthly at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in New York City—are still closeted to various degrees. However with the advent of the Internet and social media, according to activists and experts, more and more LGBT Orthodox Jews are finally able to find each other—online or in person—and bring both sides of their identity together at last.
“The Internet did what a million progressive rabbis couldn’t do,” said Mordechai Levovitz, the co-founder of Jewish Queer Youth and the LGBT Coordinator for the United Nations NGO Committee for Human Rights. “The key in surviving as an Orthodox LGBT is not feeling alone. This is the big mistake that a lot of people make about being Orthodox and LGBT is that there is a huge risk for suicide and self-harm, but not because of the prohibition in the Torah. It’s because of loneliness and shame. People don’t kill themselves because of a verse, they kill themselves because they feel alone. The Internet kind of saved people. It didn’t make you any more wrong or right, but it stopped the isolation. You feel less shame when you’re not the only one.”
For Levovitz, the change happened when he discovered the website GayJews.net in 2001 as a student in Yeshiva University. Levovitz, 19 at the time, recalls it as some sort of dating website where you could specify religious orientation, from Reform to Orthodox. “This changed everything for me,” he said. “I felt very isolated and alone at the time, and I predominantly wanted friends who understood me and where I was coming from.”
Levovitz, who had already come out, began corresponding with other LGBT Jews who identified themselves as Orthodox. “Five of us who already knew each other decided to email everyone who put themselves as Orthodox Gay Jews, no matter where they were,” he recalled. “We emailed a few hundred people. Not surprisingly a few hundred people didn’t come—but 20 of us arrived at a little coffee shop in the West Village.”
From there, Levovitz—who was a speaker at Y.U.’s controversial 2009 panel about homosexuality—and those who answered the email began holding regular events and expanded across the country. Currently they maintain a list of over 700 members and encompass groups for Jewish parents of LGBT children and workshops about increasing tolerance inside the Orthodox community. “The Internet has created the ability to have, first and foremost, this virtual online gay Orthodox community, which eventually became a non-virtual Orthodox gay community,” said Jayson Littman, the founder of He’Bro, a company that organizes and promotes events for gay Jews in New York City.
Then again, the Internet itself is a source of consternation for many Orthodox Jews: A large anti-Internet rally held in Citifield in 2012, attended by more than 40,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews, hammered home the resistance many Orthodox Jews have for such technologies. And in many ways, it was this kind of awareness of the lives of Orthodox LGBT that the organizers were striving against.
While there is no empirical statistical data about LGBT Orthodox Jews, for many the Internet provides a safe space to discuss their sexuality and take the initial step in dealing with who they are. “The Internet has changed our lives in a big way,” said Miryam Kabakov, editor of the anthology Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires, and the co-executive director of Eshel, a group that works to promote Orthodox LGBT-inclusion. “For a group that’s been hidden, it’s been a great thing. You can still hide and not be alone. You can find a group that identifies the way you do and don’t have to risk your life doing it.”
Chaim Levin, a gay activist and blogger involved in the Orthodox community, said that the Internet helped him come out. “Someone who has a question can reach out anonymously,” he said. “They have to get that going and take the first step. That’s what happened to me and everyone else.”
Oriol Poveda, a researcher in Sweden who is studying the effects of social media on LGBT Orthodox Jews, said that in the last few years a shift has occurred. He cited the 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, about homosexuality inside Orthodox Judaism, as a turning point. “[The film] depicted a lesbian and gay Orthodox scene (not a word of B or T) still dominated by feelings of shame, alienation, and secrecy, in which people were fighting on an individual basis and few were ready to expose themselves,” he wrote via email. “The situation now is completely different, and I think that this coming out of the closet and becoming vocal would have been much more difficult without the Internet.”
Poveda pointed to the Orthodox version of the “It Gets Better” series of videos, launched after a rash of suicides in the gay community in 2010. The Orthodox version has received close to 115,000 views, an astronomical number considering the population of Orthodox Jews.
Bonnie Rosenbaum, communication director for Keshet, a prominent grassroots organization that works for the full LGBT inclusion in Jewish life, said that she believed social media has helped gay Orthodox teens to find role models and find a way of life they didn’t know existed. “Anytime you have a community that’s been marginalized, has few role models, and is not supported and all of a sudden you have a place where you can go and find a vision of a life you’re looking to lead,” she said. “The first step is seeing gay men online wearing kippahs.”
Once Orthodox people started discussing LGBT life online, activists told me, others in the Orthodox community were forced to deal with it. “People weren’t able to push it under the rug anymore,” explained Levin. “People started telling stories. They couldn’t ignore it. Once the conversation starts, even if it’s a negative conversation, it can’t stop.”
Rabbi Nati Helfgot, the author of the 2010 declaration, said that social media was not in itself what drove the change in attitudes and open discussion, but rather the vehicle by which these evolving attitudes have become more widely known. “It’s not social media,” he said. “It’s a sea change in American culture. Homosexuality was once something considered aberrant and bizarre, that was hidden and suppressed, whereas today it’s discussed openly and honestly. It’s a total transformation. As modern people involved in the world, that’s had an effect on us … social media just multiplies that effect.”
This has also extended to transgender Jews. While not explicitly forbidden in the Torah—it may fall under the prohibition of self-mutilation, cross-dressing, or, for male-to-female transsexuals, a violation of the positive commandment to reproduce—gender reassignment is generally viewed as prohibited within Orthodoxy. There is, however, an unusually sympathetic responsa by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, the Tzitz Eliezer, another leading halachic decider, who stated that those who have undergone gender-reassignment surgery are now considered by Jewish law to be members of that new gender.
Joy Ladin, the David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2007 and wrote about her life in her 2012 memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, said she is in touch daily with transgender Orthodox Jews. “There’s a negotiation that’s occurring,” she explained. “The difference is that it’s happening much faster. Previously before the Internet it would have happened within communities; now it’s across communities with many rabbis conversing about it and everyone reflecting on it. “
Ladin cautions, however, against seeing Internet communities as a cure-all for the loneliness many LGBT Orthodox Jews experience. “I think community is an overused word,” she said. “One of the problems that Orthodox LGBT have is that they’re Orthodox and they know what a community really is. Community is not a metaphor for them, it’s literal. When they transition, they lose their community and it’s like an amputation. They can’t find that community again so they need to make their own.”
At last count, there are several Orthodox LGBT support groups with an online presence, in addition to Keshet, including Eshel, which was started by a collaborative effort that included Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi; the Dina Listserv for Orthodox and formerly Orthodox transsexuals; Tirzah: a community of Frum Queer Women; and Temicha, an online support group for Orthodox Jewish parents of gay children. There are countless blogs, from teens writing about their experiences being openly gay inside a Modern Orthodox environment, and a blog from an openly gay Orthodox man living in the Syrian Jewish community, the melancholy It’s Like Disapproving of Rain blog, to an Orthodox teenager writing about her life with gay parents. A quick search on Facebook with the words “Jewish” and “gay” will lead to several pages, from a gay pride minyan on the Upper West Side to small group called Orthodox Jews Against Homophobia.
As for Moshe, as he continued writing, his blog began receiving more hits. He also discovered that people were finding his blog by searching online using keywords like “gay,” “frum,” “Orthodox,” and “married.” Once he discovered how many other people were searching for a blog like his, he says, he felt less alone and marshaled the strength to come out to his wife. “I finally did it,” he wrote in December 2011. “On Friday night I broke down and told my wife about my attraction toward men … ” The revelation was painful, but at the end, “We talked about some of the men in my life and who I am attracted to and who not. It got to the point where we were able to even laugh about it.”
The two divorced, though his ex-wife remains his biggest advocate. Eventually, he was outed within his religious community: Neighbors pieced together the fact that he and his wife had always seemed like a model couple, and remained friendly even as they were getting divorced. Friends also figured out who he was from his blog postings.
Surprisingly, the outing wasn’t as bad as Moshe feared. While there was a backlash, it was nowhere near what he had expected. He doesn’t physically live in that community anymore, but he still considers himself Orthodox. When he returns to visit, Moshe said, he’s greeted with kindness and respect. “What ended up happening is I broke the stereotype,” he said. “People started seeing me as Moshe who happens to be gay, not as the homosexuality defining me. … I feel honest. I feel whole. I feel like I’m done hiding who I am.”
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